No time for hollow words

Meaning of ‘Activism’

Leo Plumb – 24th March 2022

This week, I spent some time asking people “What they expect from activism in 2022?”

This article contains quotes from a range of contributors to this question, all of whom are part of Common Weal’s network of supporters.    

There was no single issue this week that made this topic a priority. Although the cost of living crisis is currently shaking the foundations of many households and has been a constant feature of conversations I’ve had. 

Instead it seemed a simple opportunity to highlight the term ‘activist’. This is one word which can act like a prism, it can offer a glimpse of some of the energy in Scotland surrounding our social and political movements.  So whilst speaking with a wide set of supporters of Common Weal, I asked in some of our networks to circulate the question: “How do people define activism” And “What do people expect from activism in 2022?”. There was a focus on the future prospects for change in each conversation, but I never asked whether people felt they themselves were activists. 

A dictionary definition of activism is rather what you might expect: “Activism is the process of campaigning in public or working for an organisation in order to bring about political or social change.”

Most of us will be familiar with the vagueness of this language. In the news, the interchangeability between campaigner, activist or protester is usually tied to outrage of the event being reported. It less often describes the length of time an individual has fought for a particular cause. Elsewhere, you only need only think of the nuances when the word ‘activist’ is preceded by: ‘Celebrity’, or ‘Wheelchair’, or ‘Left wing’ or ‘Human rights’ in different news contexts. 

Several respondents brought up the way political parties do the same. They may refer to ‘active members’ of their party one minute and ‘activists’ the next, depending on the context. Ive chosen to focus on a discussion of social activism rather than party activism here.

I like this definition from one Common Weal supporter: “To my mind a political activist is someone that actively involves themselves in influencing the political life of the community.”

Others echoed this in historical terms “Perhaps the change in the way we view the word is thanks to the legacy of  the Thatcher era; the slow removal of a sense of public accountability… This year, I would like to be part of rebuilding that sense of democracy in politics or at a local level.” 

It might seem an obvious point, but It is notoriously difficult to measure the impact that campaigning at the community level has on national policy change. All those I spoke to agreed with this to an extent, but said that they experience and understand these legacies everyday. “Previous victories pave the streets, legislation is part of our community consciousness”

Despite historical trends, I don’t buy the argument that activism is on the decline as such. There have been many unsupported arguments made that trends towards ‘clicktivism’ (digital campaigning), have weakened the appetite for ‘in-person’ activism. There are plenty of examples on the contrary. One student I spoke to said “People make that argument to explain a decline in University Campus activism, but I’ve never been asked what is it about the campus that is so unappealing as a site for dissent, I know plenty of students who plan to carry on being politically active on and off campus, and on and offline, wherever its most effective”

(As well as the obvious – Covid 19 pandemic) The legal, social and economic insecurities of the last few years, have made engaging with ‘activism’ more challenging, there is little doubt there. One clear hopes amongst Common Weal supporters for 2022, is a growing willingness to engage with others again, “meeting folk with similar interests and ambitions to bring ideas to realities”

I was reminded too that emotional connection, and building relationships brings people to their first  to political causes, and this has happened a lot in recent years

Because of my past and because of my kids, I felt that the Scottish Government needed to do something radical for people desperately struggling with drug problems. But for all the news reports, I wasn’t moved to join in campaigning, until I met people you are referring to as ‘activists’, One woman who yelled about her frustrations, her experiences and her grief. I could have met her at some demonstration but it happened to be at a memorial instead, she’s gotten me involved.”

Land reform, poverty, social care and green social justice were amongst other issues that people mentioned frequently, they see these as essential issues for activists to unite aroundNone of them small issues, all of them tied to entirely understandable emotions.

If you consider a public protest you have attended in the past, there is always an emotional intensity. Firstly because of the information being communicated to you whilst there. Secondly an emotional reckoning with the governments, corporation or employer actions that have led to the protest in the first place. And thirdly an emotional connection formed between active participants, something akin to a bond of solidarity. These emotions do not render protestors irrational. Emotions accompany all social action providing people with motivation and goals.

You could add the mix that an incredibly meagre response from the Scottish Government to many of these issues, has this year created further agitation. “So now we have a TV-ad campaign trying to change the stigma of drug addiction, Yes of course Im all for that- but where the hell is the National Care Service???” 

Those I spoke to, still see a primary function of activism as the need to persuade people that the status quo is far from good enough. However there is a strong implication that to do that. ‘activists’ should take stock of what has and hasn’t worked and be more self critical. I leave the following 3 quotes for your interpretation:

“I want political activists to educate themselves.”

“I want to see new parties forming. Activism is important but without being tied to political expression, it has less chance of reaching a wider audience and being adopted.”

“There’s f**** all point knowing all the answers if you cannot persuade anybody that you are correct.”

It has been really encouraging to see the reenergising of local Common Weal local groups in discussions this month. To reiterate an earlier quote, these are groups where people who share Common Weal values can “involve themselves in influencing the political life of the community.” Groups who highlight why policies can work locally, can convince Political Parties to adopt those policies nationally. This is the case wether you consider yourself an ‘activist’ or if you cringe at my use of the term. And this is always essential work.

Amongst my conversations this week though there is an overwhelming agreement that a continuing distance is felt between centralised government and any grassroots activity for change. Despite being able to escalate issues in the public consciousness, activist campaigning groups for some of the largest crises we face, are failing to find the means of political expression in Scotland. There are some impressive victories, don’t get me wrong. But where these movements apply enough pressure and press the right keys, rather than progressing past the dial tone, they are reaching the answer-machine at the Scottish Government. This happens before their demands became legislation. 

Common Weal recognises it plays a vital role in the political landscape beyond the party structure, for a full reminder of exactly why, I refer to this article by Craig from just a few months back.

One point worth reemphasising is that activism is important at all levels but without being allied with a detailed vision for change, a programme of policy, we find that campaign groups falter. It is disappointing but this happens often just after an initial victory or defeat, when they should be regrouping under a sharper, refreshed set of demands. One person this week said “I want political activists to educate themselves.” In principle, I completely agree however developing strong social movements, requires a strong link to policy expertise. 

If you are involved with any local, activist groups or social movements, Common Weal need to know how to best equip your network of supporters. So please get in touch with your ideas, Would you like to book a speaker from our staff team to attend a meeting? what kind of accessible documents, education or training materials could assist you communicate Common Weal ideas to others. Email leo@common.scot with your suggestions. 

2 thoughts on “Meaning of ‘Activism’”

  1. Bill Johnston

    Good stuff Leo.
    Interesting backdrop to what was discussed at tonight’s monthly meeting

    Have you come across Saul Alinsky’s book “Rules for Radicals”?

    If not email and I’ll send a pdf.


  2. Ian Davidson

    I probably count as a “marginal activist”, i.e. I want to influence/change “things” but neither do I wish to be “bogged down” with activist bureaucracy: the inevitable committees and such like. I suspect I am not alone; there are many potential “activists” out there but folks are wary of getting over-involved. Eg, you become a shop steward; then before you know it you are the local branch Secretary etc. Perhaps this is reflective of an earlier era; maybe younger folks are more active and good at communicating via social media etc ; forming more organic/looser groupings c.f. the “machinery” of my “more active” period of “activism”?

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